A political firestorm is brewing at Honolulu Hale over the future of a 1.43-acre parcel fronting Ala Moana Center.
How it ends could alter the landscape of the bustling Kapiolani-Keeaumoku neighborhood for decades.
Developer SamKoo Hawaii wants to put up a condominium tower called The Central Ala Moana on its property bordered by Kapiolani Boulevard, Kona Iki and Kona streets. The project would include a large number of affordable units, and seven of the nine Honolulu City Council members have endorsed the plan even before voting on it.
The Council Zoning and Housing Committee will hold a special meeting Monday to consider SamKoo’s request for exemptions for its project, including permission to exceed height limits by building up to 400 feet; greater density; and a break from paying $10.7 million in park dedication fees and more than $2 million in additional fees.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell, however, wants SamKoo to instead partner with the city to develop the site as a major transit center, possibly becoming a hub for an extension of the city’s 20-mile rail line to the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
The SamKoo project calls for 513 residential units — 310 of them (60 percent) priced for those making
140 percent of Oahu median income. The residential tower would be 43 stories tall. A separate, 11-story structure would hold
803 parking stalls and a 19,300-square-foot recreation deck.
The project is similar to SamKoo’s 45-story, 485-unit Kapiolani Residence condominium project, about two blocks Diamond Head of The Central’s location and scheduled to be finished in December.
The board of the Hawaii Housing and Finance Development Corp. last month approved general excise tax exemptions for The Center. But it’s up to the City Council to OK exemptions from limits on height and density, as well as the company’s “Section 201H-38” request for waivers from certain city fees.
A state rule requires the Council to act on a Section 201H-38 application within 45 days of its receipt from HHFDC, which occurred on July 16. Monday’s special meeting is needed if Council members want to position the request for final approval at this month’s full Council meeting on Wednesday.
In his capital improvements budget this year, Caldwell included $64 million for purchase of The Central site for an Ala Moana transit center.
The funding survived a rocky journey through
the budget process, but Council members inserted language stopping him from using the money for land
acquisition unless the landowner agrees.
Caldwell told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser there’s a critical need for a large, one-stop transit center in the area, and “there’s no (other) large parcels available that don’t already have towers on them.”
City officials estimate that an average of 26,000 bus rides load and unload per day on the fringe of the shopping center, much of it on property owned by the center. Rail will add 19,000 transit rides daily, which would make the area the area the largest de facto transit center in the United States that is not on property under a transit agency’s jurisdiction, Caldwell said.
The city approached SamKoo in December about combining The Central parcel with three adjacent properties on the Diamond Head end and giving the developer the right to develop housing on the site on top of a transit center, Caldwell said. “Combined … you get about 111,000 square feet,” he said. The lower two stories would serve as the transit center and third floor would house an electrical charging station for city buses, he said.
“And then above that, much more affordable housing than what SamKoo is proposing right now,” the mayor said.
From the city’s perspective, delaying The Central project would allow for the preservation of alternative sites that could be used for extension of the rail line to the University of Hawaii at Manoa campus or to Waikiki, Caldwell said.
Construction of The Central tower likely would preclude “probably the easiest and most direct way to get rail back up and going to UH-Manoa,” he said. “I want to have that discussion now because I don’t want someone in 2025, when this system is completed at Ala Moana, to say ‘how the hell do we get the rest of the way?’”
Lowell Chun, a SamKoo project representative,
confirmed that Caldwell
approached company president Timothy Yi about the transit station partnership on Dec. 13. “By that time, the project already had been physically designed and economically balanced.”
The city proposal would be cost prohibitive for the developer, Chun said. “When you build something like that in an elevated position, you can’t do affordable housing because it gets too expensive to do,” he said.
The plan also would require HART to relocate the Ala Moana station again and necessitate amending its environmental impact statement, a process that could take up to three years, Chun said.
If SamKoo is forced to delay construction further, “the interest rates and the construction costs would blow this project out of the water and we wouldn’t be able to do it,” he said.
From 2012-2014, SamKoo spent nearly $3 million researching how it could be the city’s first transit-oriented development project for the Ala Moana region. TOD projects get concessions like greater height and density in exchange for building within a mile of a rail station.
But after repeatedly needing to redesign the project to accommodate HART’s changing requirements for the station, SamKoo stepped away and focused on its Residence project, Chun said.
In recent months, seven of the nine City Council members wrote letters of support to HHFDC urging the board to approve SamKoo’s plan.
Among them was Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi. “They’re trying to do all this affordable housing and it’s right across from Ala Moana Center. It’s the perfect place for workforce housing, and they’ve been waiting 10 years to build their building,” Kobayashi said. HART officials said they have not been authorized to plan beyond Ala Moana and to focus on the existing East Kapolei to Ala Moana line. In February, HART presented to the Council five conceptual plans for expansion to UH.
Both Caldwell and Chun said it’s still possible an agreement can be reached between the city and SamKoo.
“Tim told the mayor he had no objection working with the mayor and the city provided we could keep to our timeline and come up with a feasible project,” Chun said.
Caldwell said he supports SamKoo’s quest for affordable housing but thinks his plan would be more profitable for the developer.